Asheville On Bikes

Step Right Up // Rich Lee Answers AoB’s Candidate Forum Questionnaire

Tell us something about your transportation habits. How do you get around Asheville?

My family is fortunate to live in West Asheville within walking distance of downtown, parks and shopping. I walked my daughter to Asheville City Preschool this morning. For as long as we’ve been involved in Asheville, going back to my wife’s first apartment in Montford twenty years ago, walking and riding the bus have been an important part of our experience of the city. It helped us afford to live here when we were broke and struggling. Our first five years back in town after the Peace Corps, we were a one-car family. I rode the bus to work every day. I still ride with my kids at least once a week so they’ll grow up comfortable using the system, even if they don’t have to. I’m moving my office in September to be on the bus routes that run past my house (W1 & W2), so I can use them more.

What do you consider to be the most significant transportation advancement in Asheville and what impact does it have on our community?

I’m tempted to do a Letterman-style Top 10 list: Bike lanes in West Asheville, finally funding traffic calming again, finally investing some money (though still not enough) in neighborhood sidewalks. The big sidewalk projects coming to New Leicester Highway and Hendersonville Road. A stoplight at the Merrimon intersection where a pedestrian was struck and killed last year. The Nextbus mobile app, which everyone should use.

But the biggest move, both in dollars and lasting impact on the city, has to be the huge city-led project to overhaul Riverside Drive over the next few years. I know it’s somewhat controversial, but I’m a believer in RADTIP. Yes, it will mean a safer, more beautiful, signature parkway for Asheville, the thing we show off on postcards and spend our weekends on. It will completely change the way people think about the riverfront from Woodfin to Swannanoa and beyond. But more importantly, I think it’s a laboratory for serious long-range thinking about how we get around as a bigger, busier city. All the partnerships with the county and state agencies, all the grant experience, all the ideas tested, from protected bike lanes to sustainable building in floodways, will percolate out to every area of the city, and to other regional cities, too. I sincerely believe that when the major redesigns of Tunnel Road and our other problem roads are happening, as they have to happen soon, they’ll be using the ideas and insights gleaned from RADTIP.

Please identify one way in which you’ve worked to make Asheville safer for pedestrians, transit users, and / or cyclists. What did you learn from this experience?

As a member of the Greenway Committee for the last two years, I’ve worked to connect more parts of the city with trails and off-road walking paths. I realize there’s a lot of work to be done to get East and South Asheville improved for walkers and bikers, but we’re on our way, with a project currently in process to open up public land near Azalea Park, Broadway and Talmadge St. in West Asheville to community-built trails. The commitment is there, we just need to keep pushing the ball faster.

What I’ve learned is that it takes steady pressure and partners throughout the community to work a project through the process. I’ve learned that it’s the role of citizen advocates to constantly push the city outside its comfort zones. There’s a natural tendency to say, “We haven’t done this before,” as a way to avoid doing it. I’ve also learned that time is of the essence. Development is encroaching on our future greenway paths and public spaces, making it more difficult and expensive to use them. We’re a ways behind the far-sighted land management of the 1920s Nolan Plan, even with all our work of the last several years.

Part of keeping the city affordable will mean having more ways of getting around without the expense of a car. Part of handling the thousands of new people moving here will mean new ways to get outdoors and off the roads. A person walking is one who’s not adding to traffic by driving. Not everyone is going to use buses and sidewalks, either because of their taste or life situation. But I hope we’ll start to see them as improvements that benefit all of us, even drivers.

What do you consider to be Asheville’s primary transportation challenge and how do you propose to fix it?

My biggest frustration is the sheer number of Asheville streets controlled and maintained by the state Department of Transportation. It’s something like 80% of our road miles, from what I’ve heard. State control has prevented the city from addressing major issues on Haywood, Tunnel, Merrimon, Sweeten Creek and hundreds of others, everything from repaving to widening to sidewalks and crosswalks.

Yes, roads are expensive, especially roads that cross bridges, as many on the DOT’s books do. That surely has something to do with the city’s reluctance to assume more control or maintenance responsibility over more of them. I honestly don’t know what the solution is. We may need in some cases to buck up and assume costs of maintaining infrastructure we all rely on. We may need more in-between agreements, with the city taking on some responsibility for streets even as they stay DOT-controlled. It will surely take a lot of pressure on the state agency and advocacy for things like paving and the pedestrian improvements they’re loathe to spend money on. Whatever the solution, it’s not enough to simply say, “Oh, it’s a state road, out of our hands.”

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